The Long and the Tall of Dream Sequence.
by Gerald Saul.

A long time ago, in a film co-op not far away, a project was born. It was 1989 and the Filmpool was a much different place. An iron fisted production committee was elected annually to make all funding decisions. Without a jury, it somehow managed to avoid scandal while funding projects submitted by any member of the co-op, including some who regularly sat on the committee itself. It was a time of blind trust, misplaced loyalties, well-meaning policy makers and passionate action. It was the last year of the nineteen eighties, and Dream Sequence began.

During the 80s, a number of films had been made through the Filmpool through workshop funding. Money to make a film was elusive, but money to train to make a film was much more available. If an actual film got made through that training, all the better. Some films made in this way were Angelos Hatzitolios’s Hunting Excursion, Elmer Nakamura’s Firehall Number 2 and Gerry Horne’s Jimmy’s Game. What made these films different from others made by Filmpool members is the role of the Co-op, acting as producer and therefore holding copyright of the film. Copyright was rarely felt to be an issue as the members involved were more concerned with having an opportunity to make something than to own something. As these workshop projects grew in scale and the members of the co-op “matured” I observed a distressing situation. The half-hour drama Jimmy’s Game was being criticized on many levels, from being a poorly conceived story to being a waste of the co-op’s resources. Many of these comments were rooted a resentment of such “vast” amounts of time and money being committed to the work of one individual. When the production committee announced that they wanted to make another large workshop film, I knew that a different approach would have to be taken, or else the membership would not support it.

The committee called for proposals and selected my submission, a film originally entitled “Jack”. Rather than acting as sole director, I suggested that multiple directors take active roles. This way, a larger portion of the Filmpool membership would have the opportunity to take key positions. These directors would create some of the title character’s dreams. The workshop film which was almost immediately referred to only as “the dream sequence project”, required a second call for proposals. The process already started to seem sluggish to some and by the time shooting of the first sequences was to begin four months later, one of the seven directors had already dropped out.

I had expected that each director would cast different actors into the role of Jack and his girlfriend Jill. However, at our first big meeting, three directors had already begun to consider Chris Cunningham and Kirsten McPhee for these parts. We decided to use them wherever possible. Only one director, Mark Murphy of Saskatoon, used his own cast. Unfortunately, the actress playing Jill in that sequence had reasons to have her footage suppressed so this portion of the project was never completed.

While some money was in place for the workshop, other funds would still have to be raised. The production committee, still acting as producer, was not focused or committed enough to really do that job. The project was addressed only at meetings. Progress stopping when the meetings were adjourned. Confusion reigned. Everyone wanted to start, but no one seemed authorized to give the green light. I stepped in and made two suggestions. The first was that I would act as line producer, guiding the progress of the shooting. The second was that I would surrender the majority of the budget for my half hour portion of the film to the other segments so that they could begin to shoot with their original budgets. Some of these directors were making their first films outside of school and were very enthusiastic about the learning/workshop process. This film, I felt, would mean more to them than to me. By the end of the summer of 1990, all the sequences had been shot. Even Brett Bell appeared to be on schedule. Further funding did not seem to be forthcoming, so I reduced my 36 page script to 12 pages and shot my pages at barely a 1:1 ratio. The workshop was a success.

Post production inched along over the next year. I had to step back again to get on with the rest of my work and life. Chuck Gilhooly tried to pull it together but director’s and editor’s doubts began to block the path. After a year of frustrated effort, he also had to walk away. A project or two of mine later, I returned to Dream Sequence and took on the role of fascist. Through an assault of phone calls and foot tapping, I seized the more-or-less completed films from their creator’s hands and began an assembly. Four years after its conception, I thought that I could carry the film past any other potential delays. I was seriously wrong.

In March 1993, a large embezzlement of funds was uncovered. Our then Executive Director Brenda Owens was eventually convicted and jailed. To get back on our feet, the co-op had to freeze all nonessential programs. The money I thought was waiting in the bank for the completion of the 50 minute Dream Sequence film was simply not there. In a well-warranted panic that the co-op’s doors may close forever, I took all of these film elements home. With faith that someday it might be completed, I continued to occasionally tinker with it.

While the film lingered on my shelf, lead actress Kirsten McPhee died suddenly in a car accident. While the tragic news did not reach me immediately, I was overwhelmed with regret when I heard. I had enjoyed working with her and had prioritized her scenes during the re-edit of my script years earlier. Kirsten was a very kind and talented person and I had always envisioned her attending the gala screening of this film.

Last year I reopened the files on Dream Sequence and realized the extent of effort that went into its making. Linda Payeur (who is ironically a performer in one segment) and I put together a proposal to the SaskFilm Special Projects fund on behalf of the Filmpool. Dream Sequence was awarded the long awaited cash needed for its completion.

I have been asked whether it was all worth it. The completion of the film was never insisted upon by previous funders as the learning component of the workshop was all that was really important to them. The other directors lost hope and had gone on to other projects. But more than ever, the answer is yes. The film has its failings, but is overall quite entertaining and clever.
My portion of the film begins with a number of short plot points which attempt to tie the other sequences together. Forefronting voice-over monologues, I introduce Jack, a loner who views the world as a place where romance has died. He collides with Jill, a girl who talks tough but whose contradictions make her facade less than believable. Later in the film I follow Jill into her real home, a comfortable suburban house where her parents are the opposite of her descriptions of them. Rather than a brutal bully who rules the house with an iron fist, Jill’s father never even appears in the film and is instead only a meek voice of agreement hovering just off-screen. Jill’s mother, a faceless but ever-present force, crushes Jill with her well-intentioned advice and compassion. I keep the camera on Jill throughout these scenes, removing her previously abundant voice with mute anguish. Her claims of a traumatic upbringing become understandable. She seeks an external excuse for her unhappiness. She wants others to understand her, but she knows that no one is sympathetic to middle-class princesses who are drowning in kindness.
In place of the deleted sequence from Mark Murphy, I created a short piece of animation designed by Margaret Bessai. It is the only piece of film created for Dream Sequence since 1990 but I felt it was necessary to further express Jill’s realization of love for Jack. In reference to one of her earlier monologues, she sees herself riding on the back of a giant lion. Although we had been led to believe that everything she said earlier was false, we also know that she cannot lie to herself within her own dream. The childhood fantasy she spoke of was true. When she wakes, her voice has finally returned and she is finally able to make decisions for herself.

Brett Bell, before Strike Me Silly was even in its first frame, created one of the most distinctive sequences for this project. Jack finds himself in a fifties-style musical number where the women from his past sing, dance, and enact their revenge upon him. The shooting style reflected these traditions within a well lit studio, symbolic lighting changes and wide objective viewpoints. The lyrics are both amusing and well performed, ending with the most cutting of blows “We don’t really hate, it’s just we don’t care for you a lot, so Jack please remember that the time we spent together, pretty much meant diddly squat.” With this scene, Bell establishes Jack as someone who believes himself to be the victim of the “weaker gender”. He also seems to believe that a conspiracy between women exists, that they seem to have a unity that he can never be a part of.

Mark Wihak’s sequence is the next to appear. This is really a series of three sequences which depict Jack in traumatic situations all revolving around issues of gender and self-perception. The first involves Jack’s own birth. His mother, dressed perfectly with hat and gloves at all times, allows the doctor to spank Baby Jack while his father (played by Mike Burns whom Wihak would later cast as the title character in The Ballad of Don Quinn) waits impotently in the hallway. The soundtrack consists primarily of a deep distorted din as might be heard through the wall of a womb by the baby within. The wordless mouths remind us of home movies more than of memory. This sound is interrupted only by the sound of Jack’s own crying. This soundtrack continues through Wihak’s other two sequences as well. In the second, we find Jack as a child with his first bike. His parents remain unchanged since his birth scene, a clever device which both tells the audience that these remain the same characters as well as shows the limitations of our memories and how we compress the early events of our lives. This second event also ends with trauma and crying, again at the fault of the mother. The third event casts Cunningham and McPhee as their characters, appearing on screen for the first time together. It begins as a romantic romp across a hillside. The images are stereotypically in soft focus, emphasizing the ideal romance as an artificial construct. The scene climaxes with a cursed sexual escapade where Jill’s clothes seem to refuse to come off. Jack becomes sexually confused and the crying returns. The minimal and highly abstract soundtrack builds a metaphor showing Jack as a perpetual child, always feeling isolated and victimized.

Jack Hilkewich directed the third sequence. This was one of the most extravagant shoots of the production. The town of Midale in South East Saskatchewan was turned into a war zone. Jack and Jill are soldiers in an Orwellian future where they are chased past overturned cars and exploding bombs. The shoot was ambitious and became legendary in the Midale area. Costumes and props were not merely purchased but were in fact designed and constructed. These battle scenes are intercut with stark interrogation scenes where Jack is beaten. Hilkewich had been the last to have his sequence included with the others, primarily because he was never completely satisfied with the way his portion turned out. With eight more years of production experience under his belt since shooting Dream Sequence, Hilkewich felt that radical changes were called for. He agreed to let Corey Bryant and me rework the soundtrack. It was felt that the stream of threats that typically accompany torture scenes like these have become so familiar that the particular words are unnecessary.

As the visuals told the story so well, the audio was constructed to reflect the spirit of the characters. Returning to Orwell, we brought out the examiner’s inner pig voice. Jack’s spirit, which refuses to be suppressed, is signified with laughter. The freedom he has, even in the face of death, is represented with aboriginal music. The examiner’s victory, symbolized with silence, is short lived.

What has turned out to be Chuck Gilhooly’s last filmed drama followed. Gilhooly created some jarring but hilarious dramatic films while in film school. These were so strong and promising that I featured them all in a banned episode of Splice TV from last season. Film Noir collides with tongue-in-cheek street talk as the two characters hide out from “the heat” in a hotel room. Things get even hotter when the two finally express their feelings of love. At this point in the overall Dream Sequence film, it is uncertain who is dreaming, or if perhaps they have begun to dream together. Gilhooly, who somehow manages to seamlessly mix profanity with poetry, rage with philosophy, brings his sequence to the verge of violence and swings it back to the most tender moment of the film. Scared and angry, the two fall into each other’s arms. Mistakes, according to Gilhooly, can be undone as he has Jack declare, “The second kiss will, I am sure, the evil of the first one cure.”

Ian Preston, collaborating with writer Mike Politis, directed the last dream portion. At this point in the film, Jack has lost the girls and is falling back into his earlier state of paranoia and self pity. He feels victimized by a series of figures, each of whom is intent on crushing his ego. Preston and Politis seem to posit that figures of authority are either uncaring or downright vindictive. The psychiatrist, the lovers, the surgeon, and the clergy each in turn belittle Jack. His only solace comes with the purity of vision which only forgetfulness can give. Happiness, if defined as the lack of unhappiness, can only be achieved through surrendering your personality and becoming a societal clone.

Although occasionally flawed, Dream Sequence achieved many good things. It demonstrated that the strength of this co-op comes from creative individuals. It shows how the dramatic form can be utilized without being limiting. I do not know if such a venture will ever be undertaken by the Filmpool again, even though training programs abound. Over the past few years, the Production Committee, with an unsubstantiated paranoia about being perceived as self serving, have distanced themselves from project decision making. As a result, productions are unlikely to be generated from within the group in the foreseeable future. Although it was more work than I was initially prepared to commit to, I feel very fortunate to have been able to be a part of this film workshop process. And most important, in the end, it’s not a bad movie.

If you missed the premier of Dream Sequence in July, please watch for future screenings. Video copies will also be available for sale through the Filmpool, and remember to dare to dream.

 

Gerald Saul 2005